State, religion and exploitation

Al Richardson, who died last week, made a valuable contribution to Marxist thought. As a tribute we republish his article on the Asiatic mode of production, based on an opening given to Communist University 2001

The Asiatic mode of production involves major methodological problems for Marxists. Some of these problems are obvious, some less so. To begin with, we should note that for many years, under ‘official communism’, the very existence of the Asiatic mode of production was denied.

Marx actually dealt with the subject quite extensively in the Grundrisse - the notebooks he compiled for a critique of political economy in the period 1857-8, preparatory to writing Capital. A short extract from the Grundrisse was published in the journal Neue Zeit at the beginning of the last century, but the whole text was not published until between 1939 and 1941 in Moscow, and that edition was hardly noticed for obvious reasons. People only started to notice the book when it appeared in another edition in Berlin in 1953.

Among real Marxist scholars, however, it had already been known for some time that the Grundrisse did indeed include references to what Marx called the ‘Asiatic mode of production’. He refers to it very clearly in his discussion of other modes: ie, slave, feudal and capitalist modes of production. So this had been known for quite some time.

GV Plekhanov, for example, applies what you might call a ‘semi-Asiatic mode of production’ analysis in his work on tsarist Russia. If you think about it, you will realise that our understanding of tsarist Russia, and indeed of a large number of other places, has been skewed by the fact that it was assumed that the mode of production existing prior to the 1917 Revolution was feudal.

Yet the fact is that Russia under the tsars did not have a characteristic feudal aristocracy, rooted in land ownership. It was it was an aristocracy of service. In other words, as you moved up the tsarist bureaucracy, you were given a particular noble’s title. In fact Lenin’s father was ennobled in just this way, because he was inspector-general of schools for the whole of his province. This was, in fact, very much like the Prussian aristocracy of the period.

Russia was, therefore, not a true feudal aristocracy in the way that we understand feudalism in western Europe, but rather it was a feudalistic formation. Where the ownership of land in Russia was concerned, for example, such large land ownership as there was tended not to be in the hands of families who were rooted in a particular area and had inhabited it for countless centuries, on the classical feudal model. Feudalism in this sense was only developing in Russia during the 17th century, when the rest of Europe was in the process of getting rid of it.

In fact the interesting thing about the 1905 revolution, which took place against the background of a country that had been rapidly industrialising for the last quarter of a century, was its combination of backward and more advanced layers. Russia actually needed a failed workers’ revolution, which was what 1905 was, even to get to the feudal estate system. Most people talk about the tsarist duma as if it was a bourgeois parliament. It was not. A bourgeois parliament is elected on the basis of one man, one vote, but this was class voting. In other words, the votes of nobles and bureaucrats, of workers and peasants, counted for different weights in the different sections of the election to the duma.

So we had a very strange set-up in Russia in 1905, in which it took a failed workers’ revolution actually to force the tsar to convene what was, in fact, a medieval estate system, of the sort that Henry II had convened in England some 750 years earlier. Hence, in the ideas of the first great Marxists who looked at Russia and tried to analyse it, we find there is that semi-Asiatic analysis of an entity that comprised both ‘feudal’ and even capitalist tendencies. That is the first interesting point.

Of course, Plekhanov, Trotsky and the mainstream of Marxists in Russia, right up until the 1920s, generally accepted this approach. And then, of course, it became a dirty word. This was principally because of the argument over China. The Left Opposition regarded China as being a country in which there was the basic Asiatic substratum, with capitalist inroads deriving from the relationship with imperialism. Stalin, however, argued that China was feudal, and that what it required was a bourgeois revolution. Hence it took Stalin a lot longer than it did for the Left Opposition to disentangle himself from support for the Kuomintang

Now it just so happens that one of the central figures in the argument over China at that time was Karl Radek, a leading figure in the Left Opposition, who was director of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East. This question, as to what China actually was, effectively constituted the core of arguments about Chinese politics that took place in the Comintern and the University of the Toilers of the East in the 1920s.

If the stageist theory, that all countries have to follow the same stages of development were true, and China was indeed feudal, then there was an argument for supporting the bourgeois revolution, and if you want, you can put an equal sign between that and the Kuomintang. If, on the other hand, the basic development had never been like that, and what appeared to be feudalism, warlordism, the fighting of various great generals for power, etc, which accompanied the fall of all the major dynasties in China and indeed preceded the setting up of all the major dynasties, were not feudalism, then obviously China did not follow the nice, neat little schema of slave society, feudalism, capitalism and so forth.

It obviously did not. There was something wrong there, but Stalin’s Short Course history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union published in 1938 completely rules out the Asiatic mode of production, and does not even mention it as having been a part of Marx’s analysis. Long before, of course, PB Struve had been crafty enough to claim that Marx had first of all supported the idea but later on abandoned it, though with practically no proof whatsoever to back up this claim. Stalin merely ditched it altogether.

I am not going to argue about China at this stage, because, methodologically speaking, what we are concerned with is the question of how an idea that was originally Marx’s and Marxist, became less ‘kosher’ in the modern period. It is interesting that those who would criticise Stalin and the CPSU on political grounds over this period, do not seem to see the problem of the Asiatic mode.

For example, Perry Anderson’s book, Lineages of the absolutist state, has an appendix that constitutes a long attack on the Asiatic mode of production. Pointing to the wide range of societies that Marx analysed - in the Turkish and muslim empires, Iran and so forth - which were all indeed survivals of the Asiatic mode into the modern period, Anderson comments on how different they were, and claims that you cannot, therefore, put them into the same bracket. He consequently doubts the validity of the Asiatic mode of production as a category in terms of Marxist analysis. If Marx himself thought it was, then, according to Anderson, he was profoundly mistaken, because of the deep variations within it.

An even more artificial argument, in my opinion, was that put forward by Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst in their book Pre-capitalist modes of production. They make no attempt whatever to discuss whether such societies ever existed or not, because such a method is evidently against the ‘laws’ of Althusserian analysis. Their sole argument, which they carry on over two hundred pages - I wish I were capable of that sort of thing - is that ‘structurally’, the different parts of Marx’s analysis, whether it be right or wrong, do not fit together and it is, therefore, ‘invalid’. That sort of argument reminds me of the wonderful discussion at the University of Bologna in the middle ages, as to how many teeth there were in an ass. Some poor student came along and told them how many there were, and when they asked him how he got his answer, and he told them he had counted them, they gave him a good beating because he had not done it from Aristotle.

I shall move on now and talk about ancient society as I understand it. Here again, we have a deep methodological problem. You are acquainted with The origins of the family, private property, and the state, that seemed to develop the institutions of ancient societies in terms of classical Greece and Rome, via an understanding of Morgan’s anthropological analysis of the Indian peoples of the new world - an analysis very definitely based on the city-state and upon tribal configurations. The assumption is that you get tribal configurations first, and then they develop into city-states.

Having analysed, in my opinion, that the Asiatic mode of production is an original form, possibly not the original form of the organisation of states but an original form, the fact is that ancient history confronts you with both types. If you analyse carefully the society of ancient Sumeria - which is where civilisation and city-state culture first arose in a literary sense - though it was arising earlier in parts of Turkey, you find that ancient Sumeria is very definitely a city-state culture, and until the rise of Urak and Babylon and later on of Assyria, it was very rarely united into one power at all. Those dynasties which did manage to unite it disintegrated back into its normal form of city-state civilisation. There is no doubt of that, it was a city state civilisation, and probably earlier than ancient Egypt, although perhaps only by a couple of centuries.

Similarly, if you look at the Maya civilisation of the new world, whose hieroglyphic inscriptions are now being read, that was very definitely a city-state civilisation. It is the odd ones out which are the interesting ones. They are ancient Egypt, of course, ancient China, and probably the Indus valley civilisation Mohenjo-Daro and Harrapa. I say “probably”, because the sheer size of these great cities means that we cannot imagine they were merely based upon a small geographical hinterland; they must have been imperial, though nobody has read their script, and there is so little of it on seals and such, so this must remain just an assumption.

Then there are the hybrids - like the Aztec and the Inca empires. They are a mixture of the two. Remember they were both founded on great imperial conquests of large areas. They did not assimilate the tribes within them, and had signs of being conquerors of more civilised and developed cultures anyway, therefore they fell apart very easily following Cortes’s attack in Mexico and Pizarro’s in Peru. The fact is that these were not exactly like either type.

What I am arguing is that looking at the very origins of class society, the state and class exploitation, you are not looking at one model. You cannot say the Asiatic mode of production was first, or the city state model was first. You have to bear in mind that both models were going on at the same time.

What is more, there were great variations between the models too, and I think I know why. The reason why Anderson points quite correctly to all the differences in the models that are always put up for Asiatic despotism, and the fact that there are such variations, is very simple. It is the very origins of the state, the very origins of caste and class, and of bureaucracy. Human beings in these very experimental periods of human development are not going to come out with the same neat model, standardised and ready to be copied into 21st century textbooks. It is pretty obvious that a tremendous amount of social experimentation was going on, and inevitably there would have been a lot of dead ends, a lot of false starts and problems about the stability of the models, given the vastly different areas where they developed.

The only one I can really talk about is ancient Egypt, and it is on the basis of studying it, that I think Marx’s theory of the Asiatic mode of production should still be seen by Marxists as a valid analysis. Let’s face it: none of us has to agree with any of Marx’s principles if they do not stand up to reason, history, the laws of logic, etc. We do not believe in it just because Marx said it. The reason I think that it is so, is because ancient Egypt, which is the one I have studied from a very early age, fits that bill, I would say and I will try to explain why.

First of all let us get rid of a few of the prejudices. We have all seen too many films about pyramid building and such, in which ancient Egyptian society is depicted as a slave society. That cannot stand up to analysis. Ancient Egypt has been studied fairly carefully, and it is probable that for the first thousand years of its history, slaves in fact constituted a relatively privileged group, compared with the peasantry. That was because ancient Egypt did not lack manpower. There are different estimates for the population, all of them guesses, of course, and all different, but we can say that it was in the region of 5-8 million. From what we can gather from the earliest records that allow us to assess the tax rent yield from the peasantry, it was surprisingly high – somewhere in the order of 30%. Right from the old kingdom, from 2500 BC one of the most common tomb scenes in the chapels of the nobility is of peasants being beaten to get the corn yield out of them - it is carved openly, and bragged about by the bureaucracy of the Egyptian state.

The official assumption in ancient Egypt - it was of course a completely agricultural society - was that the land and everything that came out of it in terms of produce was the gift of the gods; while not a full god himself, the pharaoh partook of some kind of divinity and hence was the link between the divine world and the world that everybody lived in. Therefore the ownership of land was not what we think of in terms of real ownership - neither in the case of private nor public institutions. It seems to have resembled what we would call usufruct - the right to use the products of the land, but without real ownership as such.

It is true, of course, that the pharaoh might grant land and estates to his soldiers, in order to ensure that they were ready for war when he needed them. To begin with, for hundreds of years, ancient Egypt did not have a professional soldiery, but in the end a soldier caste did emerge, and these soldiers were granted land. But that land could easily be taken away from them by law.

The same applied to public institutions and I’ll give an example. Those massive mortuary temples on the west bank at Thebes, on the same bank as the Valley of the Kings but about a mile away, had incredible incomes from lands all over Egypt devoted to them. It is estimated that the mortuary temple of King Ramesses III alone, absorbed a fifth of the products of the Egyptian land available.

Previous kings had established mortuary cults for their temples, and we find the same land later on belonging to the temple of another king. So it is obvious that at a minute’s notice a king could take the land that was supporting the mortuary cult of a past king back into the treasury, and attach it to the temple he was building for himself.

On top of that, there were the cults of the different temples, such as the great Ammon temple at Karnak, which had massive herds and thousands of servants. Which cult flourished or not depended on the king. If he wanted to take the lands away from one temple cult and devote it to another, because he was fonder of that god or thought that god was promising more to him than the other one was, he would do it. So it is obvious there was fluidity, as the king could make a claim upon any property whatever: it could readily be moved in and out of the royal treasury, transferred to a cult or could be reverted to individuals.

Interestingly, the same was true of human labour. You will have seen ushabti figures in glass cases in museums; small models of people, generally with the name of the owner on, with a fisherman’s fillet on their head, or a little basket on their backs, often a pot for water, and a pair of hoes. While these began as single figures, by 1500 BC there would be 400 in a box. They are substitute servants, buried in tombs for the use of the dead. A spell written on them reads in part: “If  ... [the name of the dead person] is counted off to do any work that ought to be done yonder in god’s domain in other words in the land of the dead - as a man to his duties, to cultivate the fields, to irrigate the shores, to transport sand from the west to the east, I will do this, here I am, thou shalt say.”

In other words this little magic figure is meant to substitute for the labour that the god of the dead was allowed to call upon in his neck of the woods. In this life the pharaoh had the absolute right to call upon your labour in any way he wanted, and when you died the god Osiris had the same rights.

If you were a noble who had spent your time in luxury watching people having the tax rent beaten out of them in the fields every harvest time, you did not want to have to do the work for the god of the dead in the next world, so you filled a box with ushabtis to do it.

The number of these figures, 400, is interesting. The Egyptian week was ten days. The Egyptian month was 30 days. There was one for each day of the 12-month year, making 360. And then, to keep them in order and force them to work, 40 of them were the bosses, distinguished by wearing the long skirts of the bureaucracy, who supervised the others. So the dead had people to do their jobs in the next world and also people to supervise them.

This shows what the ancient Egyptians thought of these things in legal terms: that this sort of arbitrary demand on labour could be made on anybody and that they were expecting it in the realm of the dead as well. What increases your suspicions about this system also, are the grants of abstention to different religious entities. Around the end of the old kingdom you start seeing steles - I think the first of them is from the reign of Pepi I or Pepi II - in which the priests of certain temple establishments are absolved from any forced labour that can be imposed upon them. It is pretty obvious that this was fairly common and it is clear that this was the bureaucracy’s way of keeping itself privileged, keeping itself in order, and making sure that the bureaucracy did what it was told to. It ensured that, whilst, legally, anybody could be called on upon to do all these arbitrary tasks whenever it was required, there was a fairly complicated abstention system, a system that was carefully put on the record.

Let us look at this system. First of all, the large scale mobilisation of labour, the idea that toiling slaves built the pyramids. We are staggered by the amount of labour involved. But, people have not worked out what would be the mechanics of having so many people on the Giza plateau. It is said that before the battle of the pyramids Napoleon steadied his nerves by calculating how much stone there was in the Great Pyramid. He worked out, and apparently this is correct, that there is enough stone to build a wall nine feet high all the way round France.

Obviously there was a lot of labour involved in that, but we do know that the king who had it built only reigned for 23 years. The Giza plateau itself could not contain millions of people. Also, how did they get the capstone to the top of the pyramid when it was complete? It was actually done by a series of alternating ramps. The inscriptions on the different blocks are interesting. They show that different work-gangs were drawn from all parts of Egypt. In other words, apart from the professional workforce, who lived in a village that is now being excavated on the Cairo side of the plateau, the slog workforce was obviously requisitioned from all parts of Egypt. And the blocks they brought in were entirely kept to them, and had inscriptions on the side.

When the pyramids were built, what they did was send out orders to the different officials, that they needed so many from a particular village, and that was the way the labour was conscripted. We think that much of the hard work of getting blocks across - most of the casing blocks come from the just the other side of the Nile - was done when the Nile was in flood and the waters reached the edge of the Giza plateau, and they were brought by barge and dragged up onto the plateau. In fact there are quarries around the pyramids, where most of the blocks came from.

So within 600 years of the establishment of a united kingship, we already have a highly efficient society which is flexing its muscles in terms of its ability to build gigantic projects by the requisition of peasant labour on the very efficient basis of picking out numbers from each village. Presumably such numbers were carefully chosen so they would not interrupt the main job of farming and harvesting. It is a frightening thought about the ability of a state, already in those primitive times, 4,600 years ago; the frightening ability of a state once it is erected, to command and mobilise the massive potential created by the people in it.

Was it a real class society? Here I have to enter a note of caution. Class, along with the state, has a history. When we analyse class, as we look at it from the point of view of where we are now, which is developed capitalism, we see the classes confronting each other in almost chemical purity. Even the middle and administrative classes are proletarianised. We do not have a peasantry. Apart from the working class and the bourgeoisie, other classes and sections of society count for very little. Indeed there is often a suspicion that some of them are artificially kept in existence in order to provide a bit of padding for the ruling class. Aside from that point, the fact is that we have a chemically pure class society, with a long history. Classes are defined by their relationship to each other via the means of production. You must realise that the condition of having pure classes could not have been the case early on. There was a long experimental period, going on for thousands of years in the history of human institutions.

Therefore I think what there was in Asiatic society was a system in which the state bureaucracy, as a caste, functioned almost like a ruling class, but, unlike a ruling class, could not always pass on its wealth to its children and thereby perpetuate itself as a separate class. This was partly, of course, because the pharaoh at his own whim could remove any of them at any time, and partly because their wealth actually rested on their position within the bureaucracy itself, and nowhere else.

Thus there were some rather weird things. Early on in ancient Egypt, there was what seems to us a strange mixture of civil and religious titles. There was someone called vizier, who was head of the state bureaucracy, governed the country and reported daily to the king: ie, he was the prime minister in our terms. This person might also have been a priest at some temple in the delta. He might also have had the title of greatest of seers at Heliopolis, with other religious titles mixed in with it. If such a man were governing the country, he would not have time to dress up in priestly robes and anoint an image in a damp temple at the far end of Egypt. So it is obvious that this was a sinecure. It must have been like the system of benefices enjoyed by bishops and senior clerics in the medieval church. In other words, it was a matter of income.

That is the clue to this strange mixture of civil and religious offices. Technically, the man would have had no income, because there was no such thing as pay; but being ‘lord high this and priest of that’ provided him with reversion from the temple offerings as a form of income. Early on, all the top offices were in the pharaoh’s own family anyway, or were given to people who married into it. But later on a proper bureaucracy does emerge in which this feature is there.

Another peculiar thing is that already by the 15th century BC they were buying and selling priestly offices. There is a great stele that was found in Karnak temple, from about 1590 or 1580 BC, in which a fellow is flogging all his offices to somebody for money, and all the income that comes to his offices is meticulously listed. In the later period, people could not only sell off priestly offices, they could sell off fractions of them as well. So wealth, income, derives from the relationship of king, gods and state.

The role of mythology in this relationship was to embrace all aspects of the interaction between nature and society. So you have a complex of wholly religious concepts in a context of land tenure that vests ownership of land in the king, because he represents the gods on earth. In this situation all the tension is between the way society is organised on earth, and the products of the land that are supposed to be the gift of the gods by their fruitfulness.

Mythology is supposedly the sophisticated expression of the culture of this society, although in fact it did have other expressions of its culture which are actually more sophisticated, but which were technological rather than abstractions. Clearly, mythology was intended to sanctify and justify everything that happens on earth. If anything goes wrong, such as the Nile not rising high enough, leading to famine, or over-flooding and causing destruction, then presumably that is the king’s fault because he has not adjusted the relationship between the gods as he ought to have done, that being his main job. Hence you get kingship being questioned at certain times of difficulty, and you even get rebellion and certainly destruction and looting, and sometimes the fracturing of the country into different areas.

There are a lot of very difficult problems involved in this. For example, discussions about classical society often revolve around the question as to whether the main thing in such societies was social status, or was it class? It is difficult to argue one way or another even with regard to relatively recent social formations. But I would argue that, for earlier times, the third millennium BC that I have spoken about, it is wrong to try to suggest that you can argue for class or caste or anything else, because the institutions were in the process of development. The whole rhythm of this development took centuries.

All I would say to justify in my opinion Marx’s approach to the Asiatic mode of production, is that if anyone wants to read any further about ancient Egypt, there is a wonderful book written by an Egyptian scholar, Abdel Mohsen Bakir called Slavery in pharonic Egypt, which demonstrates that for the first 1,500 years of Egyptian history, slavery was very rare indeed. It only takes off after this period, after the conquest of other countries. And if you think about it, if ancient Egypt is not short of manpower, the slaves brought in from other countries were going to be highly skilled technicians, house servants, or people captured for political reasons. And if someone were working with highly technical skills, such as glass making for a temple, or silver or gold work, he would not be treated as vilely and badly as the normal Egyptian peasant, who was beaten every harvest to make him give up his 30% tax yield. In this sense, slaves would have been privileged. I find that a very compelling argument.

There were different words used for different degrees of servitude under the ancient Egyptians. There were very severe punishments for the peasants who tried to escape from their lands and there were also Gulag-style work colonies.

On the whole, I would say that Marx’s theory of the Asiatic mode of production is correct with regard to ancient Egypt, so long as we remember that during this period human relations, class, state, caste, bureaucracy, indeed every aspect of ancient Egyptian society, were in a continuous process of change and development.